Today, the 29th of May, a plane would have taken us from Lima to Amsterdam. My phone and every flying object within +- 10km constantly reminded me of it.
We would have:
- Sold the car
- Seen Peru using buses
- Felt like we traveled enough
- Been on a comfortable direct KLM flight
- Jumped right into a nice, hot Dutch summer
Here we are, camping at a paragliders center in Iquique, Northern Chile. We still have the car, and have not seen anything of Peru. Although we deeply miss family and friends, we keep the travel spirit high. Yesterday we had some delicious sushi and right now the car's engine is being disassembled. Lets take a few steps back to...
North West Argentina. We had just survived the spectacular rollercoaster that is Bolivia, and started heading southwards. The border at La Quiaca was the most horrendous we have had up until now. The whole car was turned upside down. The Argentinian Aduana apparently had to inspect every single item. Including my dirty socks. Poor guy didn't know what he was getting in to. Even the engine was inspected. The stupid thing was that everything was searched thoroughly, except for us!
Anyway, we got stamped into the country. We had been in contact with Yasha and Juergen from Dare2Go, and found a quiet camping spot in the wild. We exchanged stories over some wine and were really glad we could stay the evening in their warm home: an old firefighters truck. After sunset at this altitude (3000m) it just gets freezing outside. We slept in our own tent and surprisingly it wasn't that cold.
After saying goodbye, we drove through towns with exotic names like Uquia, Huacalera and Purmamarca. The area surrounding Salta was magnificent to cruise through. The neat asphalt roads with gentle curves felt like a true blessing. An abundance of signs made it easy to navigate and view all the touristic highlights: the Seven Colors Hill, Devil's Throat, Toad's Ear and Bambi's right leg.
From there on we drove northwards on the infamous Ruta 40. This national road runs from the North all the way to the South of Argentina over a length of more than 5000km. The quality of the road ranges from a fully fledged futuristic highway to a sandpit with some rocks. Leaving Cafayate we quickly hit the ripio, and drove through what felt like Jurassic Park.
Instead of taking the road to Salta at Payogasta, thereby completing the circuit like most people do, we continued on the Ruta 40. There's a very high mountain pass up on this road, and the Internet said it could be very risky to drive it on your own. So we stopped at La Poma to get up to date information at the local police station. The friendly officer registered our names and vehicle, and gave us the green light, con precaucion.
The little creeks flowing on the road were not difficult to pass. During the rainy season I can imagine this would be a lot harder. We made our way past hordes of goats, llama's and hairpin turns up to the Abra del Acay at nearly 5000m high.
We weren't really accustomed to the thin air and icy winds, so we only got out of the car for a couple of minutes and went (down) quickly to San Antonio de los Cobres (3775m).
The rather uninspiring town was our last stop to spend the remaining Argentinian pesos and fill up the tank. We asked around for the best route towards the West: Chile. There are two options, Paso de Jama (north side) and Paso Sico (south side). We opted for Paso Sico, since the total distance to San Pedro de Atacama was shorter and the views were supposedly more interesting. But the road conditions are questionable and not many people take this route, so we had to be careful. Coupled with the confidence of our experience in Bolivia, we like the sound of that.
Again, this pass gets up to about 4600m, and this time there was really nobody around. We drove past salt flats, depleted mining areas, foxes and deserts, until we got up to the Argentinian Aduana again. In the back of our minds ran the images of our last border crossing, but we were optimistic this time. Again, we had to take out all the things, but only to have a dog sniff them. That was a relief. We got stamped out of the country and made our way to the Chilean side. The ride downwards is absolutely stunning. More salt flats, volcano's, flamingo's, mountains with a deep red color and oddly shaped rocks. It felt as if we were riding on a different planet, just like Bolivia.
After three months we returned to Chile again. This time the snowy Patagonian mountain peaks make way for sand, salt, heat, and lots of impressive volcanoes. San Pedro de Atacama is the perfect base for doing lots of adventurous day trips:
Flamingo's. While eating some pink slimy shrimps, they don't mind you getting up close for a shot. The way they dance around their food is hilarious.
These little guys shoot away if you get near. A lot bigger than we've seen elsewhere. Ability to dance as well.
Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the moon. Beware: you're not actually weightless here :(
The last trip we took from here was straight out of the "Off the Beaten-Track" section in the Lonely Planet: Salar de Tara. The road to it starts with a continuous climb from 2400m to about 4400m, next to some volcanoes that mark the border with Bolivia. Most of it is good asphalt, but just before Argentina is visible, there's an off-road part of about an hour. Several sources told us that last part is a tough area to drive, because it's sandy and at a high altitude. It's easy to get lost in the jungle of tracks and barely anyone goes there. As before, we liked the sound of an adventure like this. Off we go!
The climb was definitely hard on the car. It could barely make it up the hill in first gear at some parts. The rattle we have been hearing from the engine was getting louder. Others were overtaking us at 4 times the speed. We were getting a bit worried, but we went for it anyway.
Once we got off the asphalt, we started following the main track. It was pretty clear and easy to follow. There were enormous rocks standing up straight in the desert. It felt surreal. There were lots of stones, but they were easily avoidable. After going down a hill, lots of different tracks started appearing. Now the main track wasn't so main anymore. We picked the track with the most small stones, in order to avoid the real sandy parts and the risk of getting stuck. After five minutes a big sandy hill appeared with no real way around it. Now we stood before a choice, climb it with the risk of getting stuck, or go back. Since our engine was not having its best day and we were just not feeling good about this at all, we choose to go back.
We had come a long way, so you would think going back felt like a disappointment. But it didn't. We had already seen a beautiful landscape, and made it as far as we could. This was something we hadn't done before and we felt proud of listening to our instincts and just return. We don't want to be pushing the envelope and get stuck in a place with nobody around.
The way back was a little scarier for me than I expected. Not because of the sand, but because of the very long descent of 2000m back to San Pedro. The longest descent was near the end: I didn't have to use the gas pedal for 30 minutes. There were no straight stretches at all, it was only going down. And for such a long time, that was scary. There were emergency lanes every 500m, and lots of crosses, memorials, car and truck wrecks next to the road. Of course I was using the engine to brake, but that didn't stop the car from accelerating anyway. I had to use the regular brakes as well. Fortunately they held up well for the entire way down.
Traveling with your own vehicle has a lot of consequences. We realize all the time that we are out there on our own, and if something happens it can be hard to find help. There's always plenty of food and water in the car, but that doesn't mean we can just go anywhere and act reckless. We always rely on our gut feeling, which has never let us down. At the same time, don't take any advise as the absolute truth. People have other standards and/or equipment. The road to Salar de Tara would probably be easy in a Toyota Landcruiser with proper (deflated) tires. On the other hand many people told us not to drive on our own in Bolivia. We have been fine and I'd highly recommend it.
Our number one rule is: if something doesn't feel right, don't do it. At least give it a shot. Plan accordingly, and not too much. Anything can happen, and be prepared for that.
The fact that we now feel confident about driving in Peru and Ecuador, opens up a lot of new possibilities. The past six months don't feel like we've seen and experienced enough. There's more out there to explore, and we sure aren't ready to go back home, yet.